Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Ertugrul in the age of Erdogan

As a child, I had thrilled to the story of a powerful, warrior woman on the throne of Delhi but had never wondered about who her ancestors were. I had not thought of medieval Turks as nomads, casting about in whirlpools of contested nationalities. In the modern Indian imagination—especially the Hindutva narrative—Turks are seen as usurpers of power, lumped with Persians, Chagtais and Mongols like Changez Khan who was the Oguz Turks’ biggest foe. Through watching Resurrection: Ertugrul, I began to see them as landless tribes whose only chance at life was a strong sword arm.

The world these characters inhabit is an intensely cosmopolitan one. The bazaars, inns, port towns are melting pots of race and civilisation. The actors come in all shades of brown, reflective of the mixed Greek, Roman, Armenian, Arab, Assyrian and Moroccan ancestry in the region. Watching them I felt something shifting but it took me about a hundred episodes to understand what it was. It was the stone of cultural imperialism and it weighed a few centuries... our awareness of the greater world was minimal—everything between Bombay and Britain was an indistinct blob in our minds. Millions of South Asians worked in the Gulf but we didn’t know its history. We read about Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990; the newspapers mentioned the decade long Iran-Iraq war before that. But we didn’t know how Iraq and Kuwait came to be on the map.

All I knew about Turkey was a couple of lines in my history textbook: The Indian struggle for independence was entwined with the Khilafat movement, which opposed British attempts to strip the Caliph of all power. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk defeated colonisers and made it a secular nation.

In fiction, I read about King Arthur, Joan of Arc, Papal politics. I read about the Crusades and knew that these were wars fought between Christian knights and Muslim hordes. The knights, I thought of as vaguely noble: knight in shining armour; knight to the rescue of damsel in distress; knight on a white horse; people “knighted” after great achievements. The Muslim hordes, I thought of as... The truth is, I did not think about the Muslims at all.


Read the full text of my essay on cultural politics, Netflix, and the shaping of minds via storytelling and media exposure in Fountain Ink magazine : 

Sunday, July 28, 2019

A profile of Akhil Katyal, bilingual poet and rising star on Delhi's literary horizon

By now, he had published his first poem in the school magazine. It was written in Hindi, during his “Casio phase”. He had been taking private music lessons for a few years, tabla in Dehradun and Casio (the keyboard) in Lucknow. A man came to their Ganga Sinchai Puram home and taught him and his brother to play simple Bollywood tunes. “It was songs like “Roop Suhana Lagta Hai”, and “Didi Tera Devar Deewana”. I played these tunes at public events, especially at the colony’s officer’s club, where children would perform at dinners.”
It was the 150th-year celebration of their school, and both his brother and he took ill. He was still keen on participating somehow, so he wrote a poem for the school magazine. It was called “Ghar”, and he admits he had help with it. “I wrote the first six lines and my keyboard teacher wrote the second half.”
Over the years, his language skills were getting sharper but so was the pressure to focus on science. “My mother is a double graduate. My father went to IIT before he joined the state irrigation department. Most of the men on either side of the family were in engineering or the air force.”
Katyal ended up studying science for another two years, but it was a miserable time. After school, he was sent to a private coaching centre, full of young men preparing to crack the big entrance exams – medicine and engineering. He began to cut classes. “I would take my moped and wander around Lucknow. I’d go to the imambara, or to the riverside. I rode far out, waiting until it was time to go home.”
He fared badly in his 12th board exams and failed the IIT prelims. His parents finally took him to a career counsellor who tested his aptitude and told them that the boy’s interest and talent clearly lay in English literature. “She said, ‘Take him to Delhi University and let him study literature’.” By now, his older brother had been put through the grind and ultimately allowed to go his way, into hotel management. “So I was a little freer to do this non-serious thing, literature.”


Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Naught Naught Narrative Justice

An obvious example is the retelling of fairytales. In the cultural zine, Toast, writer Anne Thériault argued that fairytales were probably women’s narratives to start with. They spelt out fantasies — “a prince, a castle, a happy ending” — and fears, such as being taken advantage of by a man or losing one’s children. It wasn’t until the Grimm brothers gained control of fairytales that “beautiful and reasonably spirited young women” morphed into obedient and hard-working ones.

Then, there is the question of medium and money. Storytelling forms have changed dramatically over the last 200 years. Women were rarely in control of the popular narrative because they did not control printing presses, newspapers or film studios. With the tide turning in recent decades, we are seeing fairytales being re-interpreted yet again. Newer versions, particularly animated films, tend to portray princesses as headstrong and quite capable of looking after themselves.Underpinning these re-tellings is the idea of narrative justice. Female characters have rarely been centre-stage in the great epics or screen fantasies of the last century. Sometimes they occupied the margins. Where they did have a major share in the story, it was either to enable, support, or thwart the male protagonists, or to be the prize that must be won. Now, with women occupying more and more public and creative roles and with some semblance of a share in media resources, they have begun to seek out stories that allow us to collectively rethink gender and power.

A lot has changed since Ian Fleming first wrote his spy thrillers and perhaps it is only a matter of time before we see a female Bond. We do already have Salt occupying the high-voltage female spy thriller zone. In contemporary times, particularly for those of us who live in nations other than the U.S. or the U.K., a better question to ask might be: why do people keep making (and watching) Bond films?

Read the full column in The Hindu
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